Satire props up what it should destroy
October 19, 2019 4:12 AM   Subscribe

Have I Got News for You and Mock the Week invite audiences to laugh at what they don’t have the gumption to change.

"'Poetry', wrote WH Auden, 'changes nothing'. Satire is worse than poetry: it has made us a nation of giggling couch potatoes, laughing at what we don’t have the gumption to change." (SLGuardian)
posted by Pinback (47 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
i don't really know the uk scene but i felt this way about jon stewart with bush and now so many late night/internet shows with trump...
also makes me think of brene brown and teddy roosevelt quote. "It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
posted by danjo at 4:31 AM on October 19, 2019 [15 favorites]


Says the so called Guardian of our morals.
Just because he does not have the gumption to either appreciate it or just turn it off.
He'll probably admit next that he hasn't watched them!!
posted by Burn_IT at 4:38 AM on October 19, 2019


So what should people do instead? Where are all this time, resources, and opportunities for some more direct mode of civi engagement? I think the issue is not that satire displaces constructive action, as that it reflects a situation in which most avenues for constructive action have been closed off . It's a bit rich to invoke Habermas to choice the public for choosing leisure and consumption in the age of austerity, of the zero-hours contract, of overwork and wage stagnation. The knowing laugh is what's left.
posted by kewb at 4:44 AM on October 19, 2019 [21 favorites]


This really doesn't go back far enough - the 1960s may have been the satire boom, but satire has been an established part of British politics since at least James Gillray. I tend to think of Punch as the 19th/early 20th century establishment satirising itself - some pointed things in there, but fundamentally nothing threatening. Mock The Week merely does the same thing in a different medium.

It doesn't mean that the basic point is wrong - but as mentioned in the article itself, this isn't exactly a new observation. But challenging that does mean challenging something which has had two centuries to entrench itself as normal politics.
posted by Vortisaur at 4:44 AM on October 19, 2019 [4 favorites]


I beg to differ.

Thomas Nast's political cartoons were instrumental in bringing down the corrupt Boss Tweed and his associates at Tammany Hall in the 19th century. What we have now, for the most part, is the kind of gormless, toothless satire The Guardian writes about, and there's no distinction made between this and satire that actually bites.

Satire with teeth is still an extremely useful form of political engagement.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 5:11 AM on October 19, 2019 [40 favorites]


This is why I like Stewart Lee. He is hilarious but he also punches your teeth right down your throat if you are what he is making fun of. There is no let up. There is no final pat on the back. The tension doesn't break. If you're the target he leaves you lying on your back knocked the fuck out. It hurts.
posted by srboisvert at 5:35 AM on October 19, 2019 [23 favorites]


Satire can easily become extroverted cynicism and that really is just Latin for lazy bitching.

Shows like Real Time, most political podcasts, MSNBC and the AM radio dial show there's a market for it, but there's a market for porn and heroin too and we don't celebrate those aspects of our culture.
posted by lon_star at 5:39 AM on October 19, 2019 [6 favorites]


Big talk coming from an editorialist.

I for one am happy to see Ben Garrison doodle Trump's head on Batman's torso instead of using chemical weapons at the DNC.
posted by Query at 5:48 AM on October 19, 2019


There’s a big difference between satire in general and shows like Have I Got News For You, which the author correctly identifies as helping introduce and normalise horrible individuals like Boris Johnson by bringing them on as guests.

I have a lot more respect for satirists who keep at arm’s length from their targets than for those who want to skewer them and still get invited to parties afterwards. You might say they want to have their cake and eat it.

It’s not an affliction unique to the UK – just look at Ellen and George Bush – but there are plenty of people in this country who see themselves as left-wingers or progressives but who think “civility” is the most important virtue of all. Doesn’t hurt that it helps you get the good jobs, either.
posted by adrianhon at 5:58 AM on October 19, 2019 [25 favorites]


Gladwell's podcast, cited, makes the very point that satire needs teeth.
posted by TreeRooster at 6:02 AM on October 19, 2019 [2 favorites]


In the end, this is what made me give up on Jon Stewart. His show became a relatively safe haven for sociopaths, who could rely on softball interviews to humanize them, and a mostly toothless rehash of news that reminded the viewer of their fairly powerless position in society. I couldn't be a participant in generating profits for his parent corporation, any longer.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 6:03 AM on October 19, 2019 [8 favorites]


I think the issue is not that satire displaces constructive action, as that it reflects a situation in which most avenues for constructive action have been closed off .

And the satire that helps people laugh in such a situation is doing a different kind of valuable service - take away the ability to laugh when any other constructive action has been closed off, and they have no other alternative but to cry.

Laughter can be a valuable tool for keeping the desperate and downtrodden going, keeping them around long enough that when one of those more constructive avenues does finally open up again, they'll be there and ready.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:07 AM on October 19, 2019 [10 favorites]


Knowing the UK media, I 100% agree with this.

Also, I as I was reading this I was wondering if there is something here that is related to why these kind of shows (in the UK) are so blokey. Despite constant critique, they remain the domain of smug white men of a certain class.

Perhaps because it's harder for women or people of color to reduce their own oppression to humor. (I'm thinking of Hannah Gadsby's Nanette show here.) This is also probably why I've never liked these kinds of shows, although all the British men in my life adore them (and I love my siblings, but boy -- I wish they didn't like Top Gear so much).

Interestingly, there *are* satire shows from the UK that perfectly combine humor with a call to actual political outrage and action. The News Quiz comes to mind, particularly with Andy Hamilton and Helen Lewis. And I remember that during the weeks leading up to/first weeks of the Iraq War, the most revelatory source of reporting was the ostentatiously satirical Bremner Bird and Fortune, until it's run got cut short with no explanation.
posted by EllaEm at 6:17 AM on October 19, 2019 [15 favorites]


I will see your Auden and raise a Dylan Thomas:
A good poem is a contribution to reality. The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to change the shape of the universe, helps to extend everyone's knowledge of himself and the world around him.
Satire can be glorious. I’d argue that Margaret Thatcher’s reputation has been diminished more by Frankie Boyle’s tweets than by the efforts of all the opposition leaders she faced in a decade in office.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:34 AM on October 19, 2019 [4 favorites]


I got a lesson of the limits of satire from some of the finest satire Australian's ever produced, Shaun Michallef's Mad As Hell. It is clearly inspired by The Daily Show, but instead of sticking to that particular format, it's largely a vessel for Micallef to run off on surreal tangents (a hallmark of his comedy) and bring in characters with extremely silly names to act as 'spokespeople' for the targets of the joke (thus not giving the butts of the joke any way they can participate or play along).

Micallef had a running gag where he would play a soundbite from the then opposition leader that had some kind of wordplay or tepid reversal, something of a habit of his, and present it as a "hilarious" "zinger" (including tiger roar sound effect). Turns out word got around in the political press, and they all started referring to these soundbites as 'zingers' as well. Soon after, he scaled them back (and didn't have anything to replace it with, which did not help him come across as charismatic or appealing.) That's about the scale of the target that satire can hit these days.

Satire seems to "work" when the satirical explanation for some public event ends up being accepted by the public as the most likely version. Americans might recall how much Sarah Palin's public persona was shaped by Tina Fey's portrayal of her (and then of course they invited her on the show, giving her an opportunity to wrest control of her persona back). On the other hand, if powerful interests are committed enough, and these days there are entire buildings of very well-paid people to do exactly this, they can overwhelm the ability of satirists to explain the world. Another example from Australia is Frontline, a satire that is a mockumentary of an Australian current affairs TV program (kind of a tabloid news magazine program - council disputes, shonky builders, barely disguised advertorials, fair amount of racism). While Frontline didn't kill the format, it was widely credited for undermining at least one of its targets and getting it cancelled - but they just waited a few years and relaunched it. The stations had no intention of letting the format die, and viewers would rather believe they weren't being duped.

What really killed the format, I suspect, was Frontline being incorporated into the English curriculum. Millennials don't get long to form an opinion about current affairs shows without being presented with an alternative, and convincing, view of them. The audience for these programs is ageing, and newer viewers aren't being created.
posted by Merus at 7:14 AM on October 19, 2019 [7 favorites]


Where are all this time, resources, and opportunities for some more direct mode of civic engagement?

I don't know how it is in the UK, but there are a lot of opportunities for civic engagement in the US from going to neighborhood meetings to canvassing for one's preferred candidate to calling or writing one's representatives. Especially on the local level there are a lot of possibilities for change because so few people are engaging.
posted by schroedinger at 7:50 AM on October 19, 2019 [2 favorites]


Can we just post a link to a .txt instead of something with maddening ads?
posted by Sterros at 7:54 AM on October 19, 2019


I tend to agree with the general premise. I think satire today is largely lost on the vast majority of the public. I was reminded of this just recently when I came across DirtyOldTown's comment in the thread for the second season of The Purge.

It seems to me that, while the intent of the series might some sort of satirical commentary on America's love of violence, I really think such an intent is largely lost on most of the people who might watch the series. For many, the show (and others like it) are just violence-fests, and the idea that it's actually a sly commentary on American society isn't even on anyone's radar, save for the small handful of people in on the joke. For satire to have any sort of influence, it there have to be accessible guideposts to help people twig to this being something other than what it seems to be at first blush.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:55 AM on October 19, 2019 [3 favorites]


There’s a big difference between satire in general and shows like Have I Got News For You, which the author correctly identifies as helping introduce and normalise horrible individuals like Boris Johnson by bringing them on as guests.

HIGNFY was the conduit for Johnson to slime his way into the public eye, and I’d argue that he understood it better than the creators - it was supposed to burst inflated egos and self-seriousness, but Johnson didn’t care about being made fun of, or making fun of himself (he openly admitted to dishonesty and venality) so nothing touched him.

Compare that to Angus Deaton, the orginal host. He did take himself seriously, and when his kiss ‘n’ tell scandal came out he was so brutally roasted on-air by Paul Merton that he had to step down. That opened the door to Johnson as guest presenter, not just guest, which has been his modus operandi in the commons too. Wait until someone else can’t take the humiliation anymore, then step in and take it with a smile and some cod-Latin until you can jump for the next rung.

Consider that the “getting stuck on the zipline” thing was obviously staged and intentional, not a bizarre case of the only famous person to use it in weeks getting stuck. As a sociopath (I’m certain that he is) he can subvert many usual mechanisms of control that are based on caring about what others think.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 7:57 AM on October 19, 2019 [21 favorites]


I think what I’m saying is that politics may once have been “honorable”, by which I mean shame and humiliation were effective tools of control - but those no longer work when they are used against individuals without a functioning sense of shame.

I mean, on the other hand, it could well have always been this bad.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 7:59 AM on October 19, 2019 [6 favorites]


Also, I as I was reading this I was wondering if there is something here that is related to why these kind of shows (in the UK) are so blokey. Despite constant critique, they remain the domain of smug white men of a certain class.

May I recommend the Mash Report ?
posted by Pendragon at 8:06 AM on October 19, 2019 [8 favorites]


This is something I've felt for quite a few years. I like gallows humor and it's how I cope with my life in a lot of ways. But politically, as an effective force for change, it's a dead scene.

I appreciate that John Oliver does encourage more than mere passivity so I will definitely grant kudos to that aspect of him specifically.

But otherwise it ends up just letting us laugh off the misery around us without recognizing that work needs to be done, and not just by "those guys up there" but "us down here".

And I am just as hypocritical to point this out and then...

Do nothing. I'm as guilty as the satirists. Someone, please mock me.
posted by symbioid at 8:29 AM on October 19, 2019 [3 favorites]


Never forget "First they laugh at you..."

Well, guess who won 2016.
posted by symbioid at 8:30 AM on October 19, 2019 [1 favorite]


Satire then, as now, doesn’t so much tell truth to power as give a pretext for power to extend its remit while we aren’t paying proper attention.

Václav Havel, among others, would probably disagree with this assertion.

The people who sent the Státní bezpečnost after him were deathly afraid of satire.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 8:40 AM on October 19, 2019 [6 favorites]


I think what I’m saying is that politics may once have been “honorable”, by which I mean shame and humiliation were effective tools of control - but those no longer work when they are used against individuals without a functioning sense of shame.

Trump gladly let his hair be ruffled by Jimmy Fallon, and before that he had played parodies of himself in movies and TV. He wasn't ashamed of all the things that people said he was--brassy, loud, déclassé. What is he ashamed of? His true net worth, his financial dealings, the real sources of his power. Those have always been off-limits.

Someone on AskMefi linked a very good piece by Fred Clark about the use of absurd beliefs to define the borders of an in-group. Conspiracies aren't directly relevant here, but using absurdity is.

If someone calls Trump a Cheeto or Tiny Hands Mussolini or something like that, I'll wish they hadn't. Those jokes haven't been funny for three years, and they barely managed it then. But I will recognize those people as, in a sense, safe--or at least purporting to be safe--because they have used these signifiers to declare allegiance to a broader group of people who disapprove of the MAGA movement, including its racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-intellectualism, and violence. The person making these jokes may be racist, etc., but for what it is worth, they have declared that they do not wish to be.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:42 AM on October 19, 2019 [8 favorites]


I tend to think that satire is only really powerful when it's dangerous -- when the people doing it know they might get chucked in jail or murdered for daring to mock people in power. If that's not where you are -- well, then political comedy ends up functioning as a pressure release valve. That's not harmful on its own, but it's bad when people "protest" by watching John Oliver instead of, y'know, protesting.
posted by grandiloquiet at 9:01 AM on October 19, 2019 [5 favorites]


Shame loses a lot of its bite when there's whole industry of alleged satirists out to score laughs off of anything they can find from the famous. While fame has always been around and satire has nipped at the heels of the rich and powerful, as well as the not so powerful when there's a sense people are forgetting their rightful place, there has never been the sheer amount of attention given to the famous and to those who wish to join their ranks through joking for purpose of getting attention.

I'm sure the extent of this varies throughout the different regions of the world, since there are places where satire remains quite dangerous, mostly for the satirists if they insult the wrong people, but in the US it's now just mostly just routine where everyone can find comedy to suit their ideas of satire, regardless of how true it might be, and where it is just part of the price of certain types of fame that can even be used to advantage by the famous by joining in, laughing along, or setting the various satires against each other, cancelling them out.
posted by gusottertrout at 9:08 AM on October 19, 2019 [4 favorites]


Satire with teeth is still an extremely useful form of political engagement.

it fundamentally affected me at the right time of my life, being a teen in 1970s, seeing such movies as O Lucky Man, The Ruling Class, Network.

We even studied it a bit in my last year of high school -- satire that is. Which is the first time the notion was put to me that satire, by definition, isn't necessarily even funny*. What it is, is a representation of so-called reality that skews things somewhat in order to ridicule it, heap scorn etc ... make a point. The humor tends to come from the askew aspect, a decision on the part of the audience to laugh at the weirdness they're experiencing. But they don't have to. If they react with horror, disgust, anger -- the satire's still doing its job, sinking its teeth in.

One of the movies we studied in that satire course was the original Plant of the Apes -- deliberately chosen by our teacher as an example of satire that, while it did tend to yield a few laughs, wasn't remotely concerned with getting rated as a comedy. But it was asking us to take the foibles of mankind and reconsider them from a skewed angle.

* For me, I'm pretty sure that the notion that satire and humor were inextricably linked came from reading MAD magazine as a kid. They were up front about being satirical and always going for a laugh. To this day, stuff like Saturday Night Live feels like an inevitable extrapolation of this MAD worldview. Which may explain why so much of it bores the hell out of me. Because I mostly lost interest in MAD before I hit my teens. Too obvious.
posted by philip-random at 9:49 AM on October 19, 2019 [5 favorites]


I am reminded of the "Soandso EPICALLY DESTROYS Trump" (usually John Oliver but there were plenty of others) where many liberals would expect that okay, now we've made fun of him, threat is over, and seemed genuinely surprised that dropping a le epic bacon burn didn't make him actually stop running.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:53 AM on October 19, 2019 [7 favorites]


"Come to our jolly desert
Where even the dolls go whoring;
Where cigarette-ends
Become intimate friends.
And it's always three in the morning."

- Auden, ' Flight into Egypt'

"the young ones" seem suitable satire concerning this subject.

Now that is satire audenesqe.
posted by clavdivs at 12:47 PM on October 19, 2019 [2 favorites]


these kind of shows (in the UK) are so blokey

Quoted for motherfuckin' t r u t h

DAVE, HOME OF WITTY BANTER
BANTER MATE
posted by ominous_paws at 12:50 PM on October 19, 2019 [1 favorite]


But I will recognize those people as, in a sense, safe--or at least purporting to be safe--because they have used these signifiers to declare allegiance to a broader group of people who disapprove of the MAGA movement, including its racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-intellectualism, and violence. The person making these jokes may be racist, etc., but for what it is worth, they have declared that they do not wish to be.
posted by Countess Elena


See, I ... have found I don't feel safer when I see/hear those signals. I've thought - from probably mid-2016 on - that jokes as a stress release would probably reflect what we're worried about, what we consider the real problem - and those jokes always, always came across as, "oh, he's so gauche. How could anyone so gauche ever be elected?" and so ... did they really mind the deportation talk/general xenophobia? The disrespect of women? Maybe they were looking for a safe way to signal those deeper concerns all along, but I can't know. It just made me feel like opposing the worst bullies required nodding along to other, lesser bullies; not exactly an inspiring situation.

(And also we wound up with that cultural narrative rather than "the Republican party, one of our major parties, just nominated an extreme paranoid xenophobe who lies so often it'd be worthwhile to consider whether he has a handle on reality at all". Instead, it was "look at this ridiculous tweet! And this other ridiculous tweet! What a funny-haired CLOWN!")

To get back to TFA, I guess I'd say I agree about satire overload masking or drowning out real, serious concerns - because it's so easy, isn't it? (And so much safer to make fun of your local funny-haired clown than it would be to piss off the local fascists who love him.)

But I also don't think the Real Problem is all of us dumb (and probably fat!) couch potatoes retweeting jokes instead of seizing their easily-accessed and instantly-comprehensible power AS CITIZENS as is our obligation. Like, dude - you're a journalist, working with other journalists - blaming the audience isn't actually a better flex for you than it is for all the world's bombing comedians. (Whether or not you're writing satire.)
posted by Tess of the d'Urkelvilles at 2:03 PM on October 19, 2019 [8 favorites]


So one note: "tiny-handed vulgarian" in reference to Trump is not satire. It's just insult. There's a definite difference, and I think it's an important one. The ability of satire to inspire change relies on the idea that the hyperbolized version of events that a satire depicts is bad, shameful, horrific--and if the people you're mocking disagree and gleefully lean into that version of themselves, then all you've done is normalize them. And maybe made it easier for them to be that much more extreme in public.

Consider "A Modest Proposal," for example. It worked because enough English people were appalled to see themselves depicted as so close to someone who would eat babies that the art sparked widespread discussion and controversy about the English exploitation of the Irish. Swift's humor comes from pretending, blackly and furiously, to be so morally bankrupt in the pursuit of profit that infanticide is a logical next step; from extending the status quo into the absurd and po-facedly arguing it. Satire gambles: does the audience have a conscience that can be shocked?

Now, this is different from simply furiously insulting someone, which is... it's an expression of outrage and a communication to anyone listening. "Do you, too, Hate This?" That can be good (expressing outrage can be a way to communicate with allies and reset the tone of what is and is not acceptable) or bad (if expressing outrage extinguishes it, it's not doing a great job). It depends on context and overall energy levels. Humor of this sort builds solidarity among a group of people who agree with one another, but that solidarity is useless unless it inspires action.

However, I think that there are a lot of things "action" can encompass. Telling someone that a racist joke isn't okay. Convincing someone you know to vote. Talking about the role of journalism and truth in reasoning. Deflating conspiracy theories. Showing up to a protest--yeah, even just a friendly day one with people you like. Just going out and talking to other people, in environments that don't already feel safe, and pushing for a saner and facts-based approach to politics and social connection. That's action. It's not enough, but it also isn't nothing, because it creates a social environment that can support, normalize, and sustain other kinds of more direct action. It convinces more people that it's safe and easy and doable to do these things, and reduces pressure on the people who are already highly invested and doing their best.

I think good humor can really encourage this kind of temperature-changing social effect, if comedians are willing to be brave enough to take a stand on what they do and do not believe. I also think it can really be discouraging, especially comedy that leans into the paralyzing fear of expecting the world to burn down. It depends on where the comedian wants to leave the audience at the end, and how willing the comedian is to encourage direct action in the audience. Comedy is a tool, and a potentially very, very powerful tool: it matters how it's wielded.
posted by sciatrix at 2:45 PM on October 19, 2019 [14 favorites]


I actually have a published article on this subject. I claim that it's simply not possible for someone to simultaneously find something funny and take practical consequences from it. It's possible to be humiliated by a joke, and for that to lead to some kind of learning or change, but in that case you aren't finding it funny. Humiliation is also a very unreliable way to induce learning. It's more likely to lead to a defensive reaction. As such, anyone who hopes to change people's attitudes (either the target or third parties) should consider a different approach.
posted by leibniz at 2:47 PM on October 19, 2019 [3 favorites]


Peter Cook, the leading figure of Britain's 1960s satire boom, made Jeffries' point far more succinctly fifty years ago when he cautioned that Britain was about to "sink giggling into the sea". That's never been truer than it is today.
posted by Paul Slade at 3:06 PM on October 19, 2019 [7 favorites]


Yes, keeping up appearances.
posted by clavdivs at 3:45 PM on October 19, 2019


In America we have developed a nasty habit of not bothering to fix elements of our social infrastructure when they break - instead we just put the weight on another part. This is how you get teachers who have to act as parents and social workers in addition to their own duties, because we as a society are no longer willing to pay for adequate social services or to adequately handle problems like broken homes and overworked parents. It's how you get police forces being drafted into an unending drug war instead of handling the latter through legislation and treatment. It's how you get homeless shelters that (where they exist) have to deal with large numbers of people who need professional psychological care that we as a society decided to stop paying for decades ago.
Because it's easier to just dump more work on the institutions that are still functioning than to fight to rebuild and maintain those that have been dismantled or which have decayed.

I feel like there's something similar going on here (I think its a similar dynamic on both sides of the pond). The state's ability to regulate and contain corruption has been deeply damaged by cutbacks in personnel, the judiciary is being systematically undercut by a mixture of patronage networks and poisonously ideological appointees, while journalism has, as a profession, become an increasingly broken, mercenary thing. Traditionally those three things are the functional institutional checks on the abuse of power in the West.* But instead of joining in the hard effort of trying to fix those things, some people have apparently decided that it should now be the job of entertainers - comedians especially, for some reason - to handle monitoring and checking the forces of the powerful. That's not the job they signed up for, that's not the job they're trained to do, and while I appreciate that some of them are perfectly willing to try, all the will in the world will not make even the most consummate satirist worth as much as an honest judge, a dogged journalist, or an incorruptible regulator in this particular fight.

You can't fix a shortage of heart surgeons by dragging librarians into the operating theater and handing out scalpels.

*Imperfect guardians, admittedly.
posted by AdamCSnider at 4:01 PM on October 19, 2019 [19 favorites]


I've thought - from probably mid-2016 on - that jokes as a stress release would probably reflect what we're worried about, what we consider the real problem - and those jokes always, always came across as, "oh, he's so gauche. How could anyone so gauche ever be elected?"

That was always (to give one example) Maher's schtick, even before Trump, and incredibly he still fucking does it, pivoting from "Ha ha, fat ugly Trump and his toothless hick supporters" to "My guests next week include Ann Coulter and Bari Weiss" on a dime.
posted by non canadian guy at 4:24 PM on October 19, 2019 [3 favorites]


In the end, this is what made me give up on Jon Stewart.

That happened sometimes, I'm sure, but you forget the times when he very uncomfortably went after people on his show in interviews. Like the interview with Lynne Cheney where she walked off the set the moment the interview over. Or when he went after John McCain, who had formerly been pretty chummy with the show, so hard that he refused to ever be on again until the very last episode of Stewart's reign. That was the whole point of the "roll 212!" bit commonly featured back then, when they'd play one of a number of clips they had cued up in the event a guest said something untrue. He also had several other people from the Bush era on and went after them, with varying degrees of success.
I have not studied the show, but I was a very frequent watcher back then, and while it wasn't perfect, it was still often very good. That is how I remember it at least; unfortunately, Comedy Central's archives since the Stewart years are nowhere near as easy to search as they once were, or I'd give concrete examples.
posted by JHarris at 4:55 PM on October 19, 2019 [2 favorites]


For the past 10 years or so it seems like there's an article to this effect annually. There's a This American Life about it if I'm not mistaken. To me it always misses the point: satire is not meant to improve anything, it is meant to create a communal space where a group can share a feeling of how absurd a given or situation is. Satire is not reform, it's release.
posted by hilberseimer at 5:03 PM on October 19, 2019 [3 favorites]


Interestingly, there *are* satire shows from the UK that perfectly combine humor with a call to actual political outrage and action. The News Quiz comes to mind, particularly with Andy Hamilton and Helen Lewis.
posted by EllaEm


I miss Jeremy Hardy's rants on the News Quiz. He was one of the very few who could rant in a way that didn't scare you off thinking about the subject, did make you laugh, and made a serious point, all at the same time.

Ian Hislop may get defensive and prickly about accusations that shows like HIGNFY helped normalise Johnson, but I don't think there is any doubt that they did, to at least some degree.
posted by Pouteria at 5:10 PM on October 19, 2019 [2 favorites]


Consider "A Modest Proposal," for example. It worked because enough English people were appalled to see themselves depicted as so close to someone who would eat babies that the art sparked widespread discussion and controversy about the English exploitation of the Irish

Except it didn't work in any meaningful sense. A century and a half later the potato famine would hit and the landowners were exporting food while millions died.
posted by mark k at 6:13 PM on October 19, 2019 [13 favorites]


I am reminded of the "Soandso EPICALLY DESTROYS Trump" (usually John Oliver but there were plenty of others) where many liberals would expect that okay, now we've made fun of him, threat is over

It seems to me the problem there isn't with Oliver, or whatever soandso you have mind. Oliver especially is very pointed with what the problems are and usually gives ideas on how the problems could be solved. I mean, do people actually do this? Take headlines like "Watch John Oliver COMPLETELY OBLITERATE Trump blahblah", dust off their hands, and say to themselves, "That is that, the world is now fixed, what's for dinner?" Who does that?

The trouble is, the people currently in charge have no interest in solving the issues uncovered by these shows, not to mention the nightly news, no matter how compellingly the case against them is laid out. They are in it for profit and power, and simply don't care who knows it. The remedy is at the voting booth, but elections are only ever two years, four years for President. What else can be done, except keep informed, organize, donate and protest?
posted by JHarris at 1:06 PM on October 20, 2019 [5 favorites]


In the end, this is what made me give up on Jon Stewart.

the funnier someone finds it, the less likely they are to be changed by it

I gave up on Colbert after the 2016 election for reasons very similar to those in this article. I was trying to explain it to a friend last night - in my experience, it's too easy to substitute watching pseudo-political comedy shows and crossing, "participated in fixing the government" off my to-do list for taking real action. Talking about Colbert mocking the latest political disaster seems like assuaging guilt somehow.

The difference now is that the disasters we have to deal with now seem a lot more serious than most we've had to consider in the past. One long weekend I binge-watched John Oliver and YouTube played the episodes chronologically backward. The change in tone and seriousness in even that show has arced from light-hearted and innocent to a darker, more cynical mood.

In the US we don't seem to have much satire that I've found besides SNL. There's no show dedicated to acting out real events - nothing like England's Spitting Image for example. If there is, I'd love to see it.
posted by bendy at 1:48 PM on October 20, 2019 [2 favorites]


I have a confession to make... my past has included a couple of stints writing comedy, and in retrospect, none of the politicians I ridiculed the most ever lost their elections. But specifically, in the late 80s, I got a chance to write lyrics for song parodies, one of which was for Van Halen' s "(I Might As Well) Jump" that I rewrote as "(I'll Sell Out To) Trump", which probably encouraged him toward everything he's done since. I am so very sorry.
posted by oneswellfoop at 2:00 PM on October 20, 2019 [3 favorites]


The remedy is at the voting booth, but elections are only ever two years, four years for President. What else can be done, except keep informed, organize, donate and protest?

Given that this is true, and given the dire consolidation of media ownership in local and regional markets, I do think some American satire, which is generally aired on national channels, does work to educate those who are still reachable. Watching Colbert and Oliver is not a replacement for protest, voting, or other forms of action -- but Colbert and Oliver are ways to show people who might otherwise only hear the news filtered through the likes of Sinclair that there's something to take action about.
posted by halation at 2:29 PM on October 20, 2019 [5 favorites]


That's my perspective, halation. Also, Oliver's show has tried very hard to make itself about something other than just Trump, although a lot of things they end up doing at the moment still have Trump as their root cause, like all the various federal agencies being sabotaged from within by his appointees. The show gives you lots of ammunition to use against people who claim Trump isn't that bad because the world hasn't ended with him in charge. (I'm just waiting for someone to argue that....)

There is nothing on Last Week Tonight that you wouldn't learn from a close reading of the news. But is it ever useful to have it summarized somewhere and built into a coherent picture, and have it be funny additionally.
posted by JHarris at 2:44 AM on October 21, 2019 [4 favorites]


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